Marisa Wright: What the contempt for Nancy Pelosi tells us about 2020

Sunday, November 18, 2018 - 5:05pm

Marisa Wright

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As a young girl, she was first immersed in the world of politics as the daughter of the mayor of Baltimore, Thomas D’Alesandro. In the 1970s, she began working on California Gov. Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign and went on to become the chair for the California Democratic Party. After being persuaded to start her own campaign, she was sworn in as a congresswoman in 1987 and rose quickly through the ranks of the Democratic Party. After the 2006 elections, Nancy Pelosi became the first female speaker of the House.

Though she has been a barrier breaker and continues to be one of the most powerful people — and women — in Washington, many candidates ran on an anti-Pelosi platform in this year’s midterms. There are currently 11 Democratic incumbents and 47 former candidates firmly vowing to vote against Pelosi to be the Speaker of the House in January when the new congress is sworn in. This coalition of congressional elects and current incumbents seldom raises any substantive policy differences with Pelosi. Even before 2018, the name Nancy Pelosi has been used by many Republicans as shorthand for everything wrong with Washington, a signal to ramp up their base against “coastal-elite liberals.” Their argument against Pelosi is because many Republicans have succeeded in making her a target, a new, less easily demonized leader would be better for the party, as if Republicans won’t gladly vilify anyone up for the job before she or he is even sworn in. 

Yet, the House of Representatives will be controlled once again by the Democrats come January after Democrats gained 37 seats to take at least a 232 to 198 majority as of publication time  with 5 seats are currently undecided Meanwhile, the Republicans maintained control of the Senate by flipping  four seats as of now. Though this blue wave could yield as many as 40 seats, it has already resulted in the most Democratic gains since Watergate. These wins are absolutely a testament to the fantastic and inspiring candidates, as well as the amazing work done by progressive groups like Emily’s List, Run for Something, Moms Demand Action, Indivisible, etc. However, credit must also be given to Pelosi and her plan to elect these exciting candidates: avoid responding to every terrible thing President Donald Trump says or does and be disciplined about the Democratic message on health care. With the benefit of hindsight, it is almost certain that the focus on health care delivered many districts, especially those that flipped from red to blue, to the Democrats.

Though there were Democratic losses in the Senate and great strides made in the House, there is only one Democratic leader being asked to step down, and it’s not Chuck Schumer, the New York senator and Senate minority leader. Both Pelosi and Schumer have faced a plethora of criticism, including calls for newer, younger leadership, but it comes with the job. Still, there is something more visceral about the repeated denunciations of Pelosi rather than Schumer, despite the fact that they share similar identity demographics and policy stances. So what gives? Well, there is only one significant difference between the two: gender.

While some might roll their eyes at attributing the hostility aimed at Pelosi to sexism, it is justified simply because it holds a similar thread to the hostility aimed at Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. In her book “What Happened”, Clinton describes the fact that her approval rating plummeted when she was seen as advocating for herself (like running for president, for example), but soared when she was working in the service of others, particularly men (serving as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, for example). It seems as though the same phenomenon is true for Pelosi, and if it’s true for them — two white, privileged women — it might as well be true for all women. Simply put, America does not like female leaders.

Despite the politicking against her, it is almost guaranteed that current Speaker Paul Ryan will have to pass the gavel to Pelosi as the new speaker of the House. And for good reason. Pelosi is good at her job. Recently, former Obama adviser David Axelrod, in conversation with journalist Gloria Borger on his CNN podcast The Axe Files, said the Affordable Care Act would not have passed had it not been for Pelosi. Not only did Pelosi craft the health care message for Democrats to run on in 2018, she made this policy platform possible years earlier during the Obama administration. Moreover, both agreed she is one of the most effective and experienced party leaders in recent memory.

Pelosi will be just fine. She is likely to be voted in as the next speaker of the House, but she exemplifies a broader American problem. In order to prepare for 2020, Americans — especially Democrats— need to begin to grapple with the extra harassment and gendered-criticisms women face when they become leaders. All of the inspiring women who won in the midterms and are now headed to Washington can certainly aid the country in imagining woman leadership looks like. Still, there are likely to be several Democratic women running for president in 2020: Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and others are contemplating bids. If Democrats want to win, these women just might be their best bet. Democrats should not kick off the lead up to 2020 by treating Pelosi with the same gendered-loathing directed at Clinton in 2016, especially because the hostility toward Pelosi was drummed up by Republicans as a political weapon to win back the House. Instead, they need to consider how this sexist contempt will ultimately hurt their candidates, and therefore, any hope they have of winning the White House in 2020.

Marisa Wright can be reached at marisadw@umich.edu